TRIO faculty member outside on a sunny day

For those who don’t know, could you start off by telling us what TRIO is?

A lot of people, when they hear the word TRIO, they want to know, what does it stand for, is it an acronym? No, it’s not an acronym. We have 3 programs at North Hennepin, 2 Student Support Services and 1 high school Upward Bound program. At North Hennepin, a total of 350 students can participate in our programs each year and they have to be either: first-generation, (neither parent has earned a bachelor’s degree), low-income, or they have a documented disability. Those are the criteria for Student Support Services specifically. If students want to join, they have to fill out an application. It’s first come, first served and is a really slick online application. Student Support Services has specific, holistic advisors. We spend a lot more time with individual students, getting to know them, getting to find out their goals and figuring out how we can help you get there. We help with everything, whether it is career exploration, explaining degree programs, or how to transfer to a four-year institution. We have professional tutors that work with math and science, English, and all of the “ologies.” We do college tours as well, within the Minnesota state boundary and contact other state colleges to help students understand the transition process. A lot of times students don’t understand how many classes to take. Some of these simpler things, that if you’re just coming out of high school, you may not realize, like taking 5 classes in high school is not the same as taking 5 classes in a college. We do a lot of educating around how to navigate college and supporting students.  Our whole mission is to help students stay in school and graduate. That’s our only purpose.

What is the history of the TRIO program?

The TRIO program was born right out of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid 1960’s. It was a program that was started along with some other familiar programs that are still around today, Community Action, Job Corps, Vista, for example. TRIO also started around the same time as the Pell Grant program began and Lyndon Baines Johnson was the President in 1965 after JFK was assassinated. Up to that point, the Civil Rights Movement had been very active. LBJ grew up in southern Texas and he ended up becoming a high school teacher and taught Mexican-Americans. He saw firsthand, because he was from an immigrant family, it was very unusual for him to get even a bachelor’s degree at that time. He was a teacher first and then got into politics. He ended up being a Senator, then a Vice President and then President. Education was very important to LBJ and he thought that there needed to be a mechanism for low-income Americans to access college. TRIO wasn’t just his brainchild though, a lot of the Civil Rights leaders at the time were very influential. Especially, John Lewis who recently passed away. They thought that the gift of a formal education was going to only a few very privileged people. That’s why the Office of Economic Opportunity was created. All of the programs I mentioned came out of that. TRIO, was the first program I worked in at NHCC and then we added high school Upward Bound. My goal was to get the word out about these programs that help low-income Americans to have funds for college. Early on, it was someone’s job to go out into the high schools to talk to students about college. They would inform students of the federal funds available for them to pursue their education. When high schools were visited, it became very clear that access to college wasn’t really about the federal money available. For these low-income families, it had much more to do with understanding how college works. They wanted to know what the process was for getting into college, what you need to do to prepare for it and so the program Upward Bound was born. Early on, there were a lot of new ideas about how to form the whole higher education system. Upward Bound quickly transformed into more of a place where students gathered during the summer, visited college campuses, met with faculty and started doing ACT prep work. Staff realized that they could actually do programming on college campuses and another program was created, called Student Support Services. TRIO funding was going out in the form of grants to colleges and universities. This funding helped educate particularly low-income Americans, on how to access college. Years go by and TRIO has grown substantially, there are now 7 programs, still under the TRIO umbrella, (but we still refer to our office as TRIO, which is why it is sometimes confusing). North Hennepin has 3 of the TRIO programs: high school Upward Bound and we have 2 Student Support Services, that’s the college level program. In 1972, it was very clear to the Community Commissioners that we needed to adjust who we were serving. If we were just serving low-income families, we needed to be broader. It was a political decision. The practitioner’s organized and decided that it would do the program good to expand who our population is. They came up with this concept of the first-generation college student. Where neither parent, has completed a bachelor’s degree. The first-generation college student was a term that came out of the TRIO program in the early 70’s. TRIO has been integrated now in almost every college and university, including private and public across the country. We have a strong advocacy group in Washington DC and we are the voice of our students in Washington on the policy level. We have a unique voice, because we have the ability to speak up on behalf of low-income Americans.

What does NHCC’s Upward Bound program do?

Our Upward Bound program, serves 3 high schools (Park Center, Brooklyn Center and Robbinsdale Cooper) and that’s a total of 50 students. That program has its own Director and its own staff. They do similar things to what SSS does, but their focus is to help students stay in high school and get into college. They work on ACT prep, community service, scholarship application help, homework help, they have tutoring programs afterschool and then a 6-week program in the summer. It is intensive. They usually travel for a week out of state. 40 high school students have flown to places like Boston, NASA, Washington DC and Southern California to visit colleges.

I know that in August, the TRIO program was awarded their 25th consecutive grant. What does that say about North Hennepin’s TRIO program and our students?

It is a very competitive process. Every five years, we have to write a pretty substantial grant, that says that we are interested in continuing the program. It takes several months to prepare and is a written document, that gets submitted to the Department of Education. Then, it is read by a panel of readers and they score each section with a point value. It is kind of a stressful process, but yes, we were refunded and for the next five years, it amounts to approximately $3.7 million. It’s very nerve wracking because you submit your grant proposal in January, which we did, in January of this year and we did not hear back until the first week of August. It just takes that long for the proposals to be read. There were close to 1,900 proposals submitted and only about a thousand were funded. When you finally get the call from the Senate office, you’re just so happy. It takes a lot of stress off. On September 1st, 2020, we started our brand-new grant cycle.

How has TRIO evolved at NHCC throughout the years?

When I started at North Hennepin, we had just received our first grant. I came in as an advisor and it was a very small campus at the time, I’d drive out and it was at the time a lot of farmland. It has developed so much, even just around the campus. NHCC only had around 1,500 students attending at the time. TRIO has definitely evolved, we started out with 230 students and now we’re at 350 that we can serve. When I started, there were only two staff members, myself and the Director. Then we added a counsellor and some student tutors. We’ve grown substantially and the college embraced us. Students know they can just let down all of their stress, because now they’re in a safe space. They know that they can make mistakes and that this is a nurturing environment. A supportive place where they can grow. That’s why we have really strong retention numbers and really high graduation rates. This is what our mission is. We’ve been tasked with this, to keep students informed as much as possible, to know what their options are. Many students are confused specifically about how to get into a specific career. We spend a lot of time educating ourselves as professionals, to be able to impart that information to students. This whole COVID-19 situation has been particularly interesting, we thought that we would disconnect from students, but in fact, it’s been the opposite, we’ve had a lot more of different kinds of interactions with students. It’s really hard for students to do school and life their lives. Whatever their circumstances might be, it’s really hard for them to try to juggle everything. I know this is not an easy time either, but we’re doing everything we can to connect with students. We do everything we can possibly do, especially for our low-income students, who might not have a lot of resources. We try to connect them with technology. There’s a program called, Minnesota Computers for Schools, that gives out laptops to students. North Hennepin has been great about making sure students have access to technology. We have loan programs; we have free Wi-fi in our parking lots and teach students how to use Zoom. We spend a lot of time with students, teaching them how to navigate the classroom. It’s a learning curve for a lot of our students but I think NHCC has done a tremendous job of reaching out to students to help them understand how to do school this way.

Where do you see the TRIO program at NHCC going in the future?

I hope that we continue to grow and that we continue to do the work. I hope that we can stay on top of all of the changes. We’re not going anywhere and I want to see the work that we’ve been doing all along continue, because we have been very successful. The fact that we were renewed again, shows that. There’s a part of the grant that we have to, each year, show that we are making a difference and our retention numbers are higher than those that might qualify, but don’t join. A lot of our stats show that we’re even doing a better job, of retention with students that don’t qualify for TRIO. Our retention rates and graduation rates are pretty remarkable and that tells me that we’re doing the right thing. It can be as simple as a conversation where we connect with a student and they say, “I don’t know why my classes got dropped this semester” and we just dive right in and figure out what happened. We have the time in TRIO to be able to spend individually with each student. We have relationships with our students and I think that is really important. A lot of times with TRIO, colleges sort of look at TRIO as a model for retention. Our tutoring services for the general student population have grown, our advising center has grown. The advising model was started in the TRIO office and now we have a full advising center on campus. There are things like that, that TRIO started out doing, that the college has emulated. I think North Hennepin has done a fantastic job!

What would you tell a prospective student about the value of the TRIO/SSS program?

I would say that, you’re going to find that the fear factor lessens when you join the program. Sometimes students, when they haven’t had good experiences in their educational path, they are afraid of what success looks like. We are going to change our students thinking about themselves. We say in TRIO, ‘We are going to believe in you, sometimes more than you believe in yourself.’ We believe in our students and we aren’t going to say, ‘No, you can’t.’ Or, ‘No, you’re not college material.’ We don’t say those things. We say, ‘Yes, you can do this’ and ‘Look at you go.’ We do a lot of reinforcing the fact that our students are really wise and our students are really motivated. Our students have what it takes to be successful in college. That’s the biggest thing and the biggest lesson. A lot of times, students don’t have the confidence in themselves that they need to succeed and we try to really hone in on that.

-Shelly would like to add that she has a really great staff. A lot of the staff are TRIO alums like her. They really understand where our students are coming from. Also, she thinks we have an incredibly supportive administration at NHCC. “Kudos to my supervisor and the Executive Team at North Hennepin. You really get what TRIO is about and we couldn’t be doing what we do without your support. Hats off to all the support that we see from all of our partners around campus.”

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